Minutes after judoka Yarden Gerbi won the eighth Olympic medal in the history of the Jewish state Tuesday, American- Jewish journalist Yair Rosenberg rained on our parade.
“Israelis are celebrating winning a bronze medal at the Olympics like they just won the World Cup, which is amusing,” he wrote on Twitter. The obvious, natural first reaction to such a tweet is to scowl, call Rosenberg names, and question why embattled Israel is not entitled to finally have a few moments of joy.
But Rosenberg’s cynicism raises a question that deserves an earnest answer: Why do we in Israel care so much about a little, circular piece of third-place metal on the neck of a 63-kilo, 1.69-meter young lady? After all, American swimmer Michael Phelps has won 25 Olympic medals on his own. Sure, we are a small country, but Kosovo has less than a third of our population, is also war-torn, and their smaller judoka won a gold.
Answering the question requires going back to what arguably remains the most important victory in the history of Israeli sports: In 1977’s European Cup basketball semifinals, when Maccabi Tel Aviv defeated CSKA Moscow, the team of the Red Army of the Soviet Union, which was boycotting Israel during the Cold War.
In his American-accented Hebrew, Maccabi star Tal Brody uttered the unforgettable quote that symbolizes Israeli sports to this very day: “We are on the map, and we are staying on the map – not just in sports but in everything.”
Since then, any big victory by Israel and Israelis in any sporting event, from judo to bridge, is a statement that the Jewish state is here to stay. Gerbi’s victory over her Japanese counterpart Tuesday night not only put Israel on the table of medal winners in Rio de Janeiro, it put us on the table in everything.
But it was important that it happened in judo, the sport in which Israel has won half its medals. Israel’s success in judo proves that we are tough, that Israel, a country still defending itself, is raising strong Jews decades after the Nazis tried to destroy our people.
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As long as we are going back in time, it is important to remember how devastated Israel was just four years ago, when its delegation returned from the Olympics in London empty-handed.
With no hero to praise, Israel more or less adopted American- Jewish gymnast Aly Raisman, who performed to “Hava Nagila” and dedicated the three medals she won in London to the 11 Israeli sportsmen who were murdered at the Munich Olympics in 1972.
In an exclusive Jerusalem Post report that made headlines around the world, then-Diaspora affairs minister and current Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein sent an invitation to Raisman and her family to make their first visit to Israel.
Those Munich Olympics make every medal won by Israel special.
Like Raisman, Gerbi also dedicated her medal to those sportsmen, saying she hoped it would “close a circle.”
But that circle will actually never be closed. The murdered Olympians will continue to inspire our sportsmen and make them try that much harder. If anything would close that circle, it would be Middle East peace. But four days before Gerbi won her medal, the Lebanese Olympians in Rio refused to board a bus together with the Israeli delegation, proving that peace is not exactly on the horizon.
Had Gerbi not won, that Lebanese refusal would have been the biggest Israel-related headline from these Olympics. Our athletes would have gone home not only depressed and defeated but also rejected and boycotted.
In that kind of atmosphere, Israelis would have demanded a commission of inquiry to investigate the Olympic shutout, as well as the ouster of Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev. There was already talk of that 24 hours before Gerbi won, when her fellow Israeli judo star Sagi Muki lost a match that would have won him a bronze medal.
Israeli families across the country kept their children awake two nights in a row to cheer on athletes in a sport few of them understand.
Facebook was full of pictures of fathers and tired daughters watching an Israeli woman win a medal for the first time in 24 years.
There isn’t a lot that unites Israelis.
Victories in sports can unite a country in a powerful way that Americans can’t really understand, since they dominate so many international sports.
Cynics can say that haredi (ultra-Orthodox) children have never heard of Gerbi, that Arab Israelis would not see her as their representative, and that poor people could not have watched the match live, because it was broadcast on cable. But that still leaves a sizable majority of the population, which normally bickers on everything, celebrating together, so it is still quite an accomplishment.
The final and perhaps most important reason that winning the bronze medal matters is Gerbi herself.
She is the quintessential Israeli: small but powerful, beleaguered but intensely patriotic, bleeding but victorious.
She won her medal with grace that could make all of Israel proud.
And after winning, she bowed to her opponent, wept tears of joy on the floor, and then leaped into a crowd of her adoring fans waving blue and white flags.
She received the medal from International Olympic Committee vice chairman Alex Gilady, himself a proud Israeli.
Gerbi then gave dozens of interviews with poise, accepted calls from President Reuven Rivlin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on live television with respect, and then, when she was finally free, called her father in Israel and told him with refreshing, childlike joy: “Your daughter is an Olympic medalist” – as if he didn’t know.
So there is plenty of reason for Israel – and Jews around the world – to celebrate Gerbi’s medal. And despite the cynics, the next time an Israeli wins a medal, whether it is in eight days or eight years, we will celebrate again.
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